A Life in Literacy

By Strong, Gary E. | American Libraries, December 1998 | Go to article overview

A Life in Literacy


Strong, Gary E., American Libraries


A LONGTIME ADVOCATE OF LITERACY IN LIBRARIES LOOKS AT WHERE WE'VE BEEN AND WHERE WE SHOULD GO IN THE COMING CENTURY

It was Theresa Truchot who first enlisted me in the cause for literacy. Mrs. Truchot was a diminutive retired schoolteacher with a strong will. She visited me one morning at my office at the Lake Oswego (Oreg.) Public Library in 1967. She had just finished learning the Laubach method of tutoring adults and wanted to use the library's meeting room to conduct training sessions for other tutors. But she shared much more with me. She convinced me that the library should be involved in helping people learn how to read.

In my next position in Everett, Washington, I became even more convinced of the importance of literacy when I found adults being laid off from Boeing, Scott Paper, Weyerhaeuser, and the local slaughterhouse who were unable to read the want ads or complete a resume to apply for a new job.

Later, as California State Librarian, I had the opportunity to take a stand for adults who could not read. When we created the California Literacy Campaign in 1984, many thought we were crazy. But Jonathan Kozol did not. I invited the author of Illiterate America and other works on the subject to come to California to work with us to develop a literacy program, and he turned my life on end. Since then thousands of adults have learned to read in the state's public library programs.

I have always believed in the public library as "the people's university." I didn't have a wonderful public library down the street from me as I grew up. My inspiration came at the Potlatch (Idaho) High School Library with Mrs. Bennett, who opened the world of librarianship for me. Later, while driving a bookmobile on an LSCA demonstration project at the Latah County Free Library, I experienced firsthand the hunger people have for reading.

Actually, I can't remember a time when I could not read. It seems as if it is something that I have always known how to do. My great-grandmother used to gather us up into her lap and tell us stories - scary snake stories. She instilled in me the love of a good story and pushed me to read. Years later, as I met individuals who could not read, I learned how important reading is in people's lives. I discovered that people who cannot read often feel unconnected and alone. The public library, with its nonjudgmental mission, is a tremendous source of support and encouragement. I have always believed that the public library is a significant partner in creating the "Learning Society" called for in A Nation at Risk.

When we developed the California Literacy Campaign nearly 15 years ago, we believed it had a single purpose. Affirmed by the California legislature in 1990, the CLC was designed to help the state's English-speaking adults and out-of-school youth to improve their ability to read and write. By that time, the 70-plus public libraries engaged in the CLC had demonstrated that public libraries not only had a part to play, they were often key players in the community. The act created the California Library Literacy Service as a public library program designed to reduce adult illiteracy by providing English-language literacy instruction and related services to adults and youth who were not enrolled in school.

The following year, we were able to get legislation for the Families for Literacy Program through the California legislature. The program was structured to help prevent illiteracy through coordinated literacy and preliteracy services to families that include illiterate adults and young children. It provides reading preparation services for young children in public library settings and instructs parents in the importance of reading to their children. One particular aspect of the program was very important to me: the ability to give quality books to children and their parents with which to begin a home library.

This intergenerational program is reaping wonderful dividends for libraries and their users. …

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